Collections on the Move

Jason B. Kauffman

For most of my short time at the Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) Archives, I have occupied myself with “the move.” Shortly before I began in July 2016, MC USA made the decision to transfer all archival collections from their long-time home on the campus of Goshen College to a new facility at the denominational building in Elkhart. I spent the better part of ten months (July 2016-April 2017) planning for and carrying out the move of over 6,500 boxes—from three different locations—onto new shelves in Elkhart. Among these boxes were six new ones from Forks Mennonite Church, a congregation outside of Middlebury, Indiana, which closed its doors in December 2016, 159 years after it was first established. Also among the boxes were those of several Mennonite congregations which have recently withdrawn from the Indiana-Michigan Conference of MC USA.

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Forks Mennonite Church, 1967

Not among the items moved were those boxes belonging to Goshen College (GC), composed mostly of institutional records and the papers of former faculty members. While these records had been managed along with those of the (old) Mennonite Church (and related agencies) since the archive’s founding in 1937, as part of the move MC USA formally relinquished “all interest in or claims to ownership” of GC records.1 The move of MC USA collections to Elkhart was the final step in a process of separating out collection management responsibilities that the two institutions initiated several years earlier. A similar phase in the decentralization of Mennonite institutional recordkeeping occurred in 2012 when Mennonite Central Committee relocated over 1,200 linear feet of material from the MC USA Archives to its headquarters in Akron, PA.

Indeed, the wheels for this year’s move were set in motion long before I arrived. These flows of collections in and out of the archives happened for practical reasons, but are also integrally related to changes that have occurred in the denominational landscape in the last two decades. How have realignments happening across MC USA—and the departures of congregations and conferences—affected its ability to preserve the history of its predecessor denominations, its agencies, and the people whose actions have shaped institutions into their present forms?

Archives move for a variety of reasons. For MC USA, one of the primary “push factors” was that we were out of space. When the archives moved into the Newcomer Center on the GC campus in 1959, it needed 1,500 square feet of space to house its entire collection. As the collection grew, the (old) Mennonite Church rented progressively more space from the college so that by 2016, collections occupied around 2,900 square feet in Newcomer and another 1,700 in the Westlawn building.2 On a basic level, then, the denominational building in Elkhart offered the space necessary to reunite dispersed records in one location.

While space was a major issue, financial considerations also figured prominently in the decision to move collections to Elkhart. For most of its history, the archives was overseen by a standing Historical Committee which supported the publication of books and spearheaded a variety of initiatives that reached global audiences. The archives was an active part of the ministry of the (old) Mennonite Church and the denomination regarded it as a major center for the preservation of Anabaptist cultural heritage. In fact, the archives accepted records that extended beyond the denomination, including many significant Hutterite and Amish collections.

Since the creation of MC USA in 2002, and likely before, denominational support for the work of the archives has gradually declined. Shortly before I arrived, reduced budgets and smaller staffs contributed, in part, to the decision to create a new collection development policy with a much narrower scope. This, in turn, led to the deaccession of manuscript collections, congregational records, and conference records to new repositories. The move to Elkhart provided an opportunity for the denomination to eliminate rental payments to Goshen College, moving the archives closer to a sustainable operational model.3

Many of the reasons behind changes in policy at the MC USA Archives are tied to its own history as an institution. However, these recent developments also reflect changes that the denomination has undergone since it was created through the merger of the (old) Mennonite Church and the General Conference in 2002. Since then, hundreds of congregations (and entire conferences) have left MC USA which, in turn, has contributed to a significant decrease in financial support for the work of the denomination and its ministries. And, like most other ministries, the archives has not been immune to this financial crisis. The move is thus an acknowledgment of the important role the archive plays in the preservation of the denomination’s historical record, but it also represents an effort to shore up the many costs associated with its operation.

But what other costs—beyond financial—have resulted from the move? On a practical level, researchers must now potentially travel to three different locations to consult collections that used to be housed in Goshen.4 On a broader level, the move ended an almost century-long relationship between Goshen College and the (old) Mennonite Church. It has also ended (and strained) a newer relationship with the Mennonite Library and Archives (MLA) at Bethel College. Since 2002, MC USA has subsidized the work of the MLA to cover the cost of housing and managing the institutional records of the General Conference, one of MC USA’s predecessor denominations. Within the last year, MC USA made the decision to discontinue funding for the MLA. Rather than ship those records to the new facility in Elkhart, Bethel College chose to take on ownership and is currently working to build an endowment to fund the MLA.5 A similar process has taken place within Mennonite Church Canada, as the denomination recently turned over management of the Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives to Canadian Mennonite University.6

As M.J. Heisey has noted, the movement and reconfiguration of archival collections over time “make significant statements on the politics of the present.” This is clearly the case with the changes that have taken place in the Mennonite archival world in the last several years. But why does all of this matter? Certainly there are more pressing issues in our denomination (and our world) that deserve our attention before the preservation of a bunch of old, dusty documents that only a fraction of Mennonites actually use.

I think at least part of the answer to this question lies in the centrality of history to Mennonite identity. As John Roth has noted,

“Mennonites are a people whose identity is formed by story. Our theology has been intimately connected with our history. So attentiveness to how we tell our story is profoundly important. How we preserve these records are not simply technical questions of keeping them dry and well organized. We also have a long tradition of gathering archival records in ways that enable historians to give the fullest possible account of our past.”7

With Roth and many others, I lament the recent fragmentation (and defunding) of Mennonite institutional archives. But these recent developments also compel Mennonites to reassess what is important to us about our past and set priorities for the institutions that will preserve our historical memory going forward. Present realities are much different today than they were in 1960 (or even 2000): resources are far scarcer, and old ways of doing things are no longer sustainable. If our story is as important to our identity as Roth suggests, then our denomination—and Mennonite-related historical organizations in general—will need to generate new, creative ways to care for the shared cultural heritage that we have created (and will continue to create). Or, as Rolando Santiago has put it, we need to think seriously about “how we care for our fragile church institutions in times when budgets and resources are decreasing . . . address their flaws, and build their financial assets.”

Such changes won’t happen overnight and they will likely require expertise, wisdom, collaboration, and support from a network of committed individuals and institutions. Already, I have been encouraged by new relationships that have grown out of the move to Elkhart. This summer the archives formed a partnership with Mennonite Mission Network’s SOOP program that will provide an opportunity for volunteers to support the work of the archives. I am also exploring avenues to create a regular internship program for college students interested in a library, archive, or museum career. They will join an existing core of committed volunteers as we work together to arrange and describe the records that continue to arrive at the archives.

If you care about our Mennonite story, I invite you to join with me and other Mennonite-related historical organizations in imagining new ways that we can work together to create sustainable and thriving programs that will benefit future generations. In the meantime, I will continue to do my best to preserve the rich stories that are already here—those of the many individuals and institutions that have shaped the history of our denomination. This includes congregations—such as Forks Mennonite Church—that are no longer meeting and those that have chosen to leave the denomination. Their histories, too, are central parts of our collective Mennonite story.

  1. This wording is taken from a Memorandum of Understanding between MC USA and Goshen College finalized in April 2017. 
  2. In 2014, the archive also shipped 342 boxes to a remote storage facility in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Archival records were first moved to the Westlawn building in 1999. Discussion of space needs in the archives administrative files date to 1986, but conversations were likely initiated earlier than this. 
  3. Due to the generous support of private donors, the denomination accrued no debt to remodel the space, install moveable shelves, and move the collection from Goshen to Elkhart. 
  4. For example, researchers interested in the life and work of Harold S. Bender will find materials in the institutional records of the (old) Mennonite Church at the MC USA Archives in Elkhart, his personal papers and faculty records at Goshen College, and Mennonite Central Committee records in Akron, PA. 
  5. A Memorandum of Understanding between MC USA and Bethel College was finalized in July 2017. 
  6. According to the press release, Mennonite Church Canada will still provide funding for the archives through a three-way partnership with CMU and the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg. 
  7. Heisey and Roth made these statements in 2012 in reference to the relocation of MCC’s archive from Goshen to Akron, PA. 

Half of the Story, Honestly Told: Review of Benjamin Goossen’s “Chosen Nation”

William Yoder, Ph.D.

Benjamin W. Gossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a German Era (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2017). ISBN: 978-0-691-17428-0. Cloth $49.50; eBook $34.99.

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The “invention” of a Mennonite nation is one outstanding theme in Benjamin Goossen’s dissertation, Chosen Nation. Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published by Princeton University Press in June 2017. This Mennonite from Kansas with Russian-Ukrainian roots points to the fact that the theory of a Mennonite “nation” was based on the assumed existence of a Jewish one. In both cases, a religious-ethnic grouping present in many cultures was seen as part of a larger nation transcending traditional cultural and linguistic boundaries. In the fascist-controlled, post World War I-regions of Europe, Mennonites even of Dutch heritage had celebrated themselves as champions of “Germandom.” But for obviously opportunistic reasons, the concept of a transnational Mennonite “nation” kicked in after 1945. It was used as a crux for obtaining exist visas to the Americas in post-war, anti-fascist Europe.

The Mennonite icon Peter J. Dyck (1914-2010) was honest enough to admit in 1988 that the claim of being a nation had been “a temporary cloak woven from the wool of political expediency.” The refugees from Russia had “changed their identity when it suited them. They became chameleons” (199). Dyck himself had under Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) tutelage helped fashion this construct at the end of WW II. The claim was used to spare once-Nazi Mennonites who deserved retribution. But of course, Dyck’s motives were somehow humanitarian.

In the course of the past several centuries, Mennonites had insisted on privilege. Privilege—in taxation for example—was very much a part of their decision to move to Russia (now eastern Ukraine) in the 1780s. When it was convenient, Mennonites promoted their state of privilege either by citing their Germanness or their supranational nationhood. Goossen points out that the ethnic and racial criteria prevalent during the Nazi period survived into the post-war era. Agnostics and Catholics posed as Mennonites in hopes of obtaining equal privilege for emigrating to the Americas. The criteria remained cultural and racial. He asks on page 182: “What were MCC’s refugee operations, after all, but an elaborate exercise in ethnic nationalism?” It was the Cold War’s transition from anti-fascism to anti-communism which in 1951 finally opened Canada’s gates even for Mennonite members of the Waffen-SS (181).

A particularly strong point of this book is its descriptions of Nazi fascination for the Mennonite colonies of Eastern Europe, an appeal underscored by Heinrich Himmler’s landmark visit to the Molotschna colony in October 1942. Mennonites in the USSR were one of “Germandom’s” most impressive specimens and “groundbreakers for Germandom.” Though scattered across the globe, Mennonites’ “church discipline and religious racial defense system have protected (them) one-hundred-percent against the dilution of their blood through the infiltration of foreign elements. There is likely no other confession in the world that demonstrates such a racially uniform character as the Mennonites” (131, from Benjamin Unruh, approx. 1939). Supposedly the most Aryan of all, this characteristic made them prime targets for Nazi anthropologists and Eugenicists. According to the author, Mennonites “relished the attention” these researchers showered upon them.

Goossen is to be thanked for pointing to the questionable, racist character of genealogical research as practiced by ethnic Mennonites. Though it had been strongly propagated by fascist circles, Mennonite theologian Harold S. Bender (1897-1962) wrote in 1950: “It is encouraging to learn that a permanent interest in family history remains among the Mennonites in Germany, even after the Hitler regime has long since passed away” (201).

The book points to the direct linkage between pacifism and Mennonite quietism. The Mennonite understanding with Czarist authorities assumed that freedom from the draft would be conceded if the colonies did not proselytise. Numerical growth had to be restricted to procreation; to do otherwise would have exceeded the limits of Russian tolerance.

The pacifism issue was also a source of long-term tension between Mennonites in Germany and the diaspora. Germany had no Mennonite conscientious objectors after the 1870s, and in 1912 the Danzig “modernizer” Hermann Mannhardt (1855-1927) was very much opposed to the repatriation of Ukrainian Mennonites to Germany. After all, “Mannhardt and his associates had spent the last half-century ridding pacifism from their own congregations. At the very moment that charges of cowardice were finally dissipating, it would be madness to import 100,000 colonists” (102). At the turn of the twentieth century, the pacifists were rural and traditional, located primarily in Russia and North America. It was the urban Mennonite middle-class  in Germany and Holland that had by then opted to “modernize.”

It was also the rural and traditional who best resisted the enticements of Nazism. After a trip to Paraguay in the 1930’s, the pro-Nazi geographer Herbert Wilhelmy (1910-2003) complained that Mennonites there viewed the Third Reich as “too militarist and too worldly.” These “religious fanatics consider (pro-Nazi Mennonites) as being traitors to the Mennonite cause” (142). In North America, South German- and Swiss-rooted “Old Mennonites” and Amish expressed little admiration or interest in Hitler. Yet this is not the entire story: Pro-fascist sentiment among the low-German Mennonites of Manitoba in the 1930s also included the rural.

Goossen’s treatise includes tidbits of information worthy of further exploration. Numerous Mennonites were active in Germany’s liberal “Vormärz” revolution of 1848. Krefeld banker Hermann von Beckerath (1801-1870) served as the German Reich’s first minister of finance. Indeed, Krefeld’s industrialist Von der Leyen family had been active in German politics and finance since the 1650s. (The current German minister of defense, the Lutheran Ursula von der Leyen, is married to a member of this Mennonite family.)

A particularly unsavoury set of anecdotal clips refers to Mennonites caught up in the fascist war. Heinrich Wiens, a Molotschna native and member of an SS-Einsatzgruppe, was involved in the elimination of Jews with gas vans (159). Jakob Reimer from Halbstadt/Ukraine participated in a massacre near Lublin (apparently the “Aktion Erntefest” of November 1943—see 162).

No less questionable were persons mentioned by Goossen as the close allies of Mennonites. Adolf Ehrt (1902-1975), the head of the Nazi “Anti-Comintern,” wrote his dissertation on the Mennonites. Georg Leibbrandt (1891-1982), a “long-time scholar of Mennonitism” (163), participated in the “Wannsee Conference” of January 1942 and was co-responsible for the mass extermination of Jews. Leibbrandt also served as an advisor to German chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1955 (see German “Wikipedia”).

Erected in a region of dense Mennonite settlement near Danzig, Mennonite contractors were involved in the construction of the Stutthof concentration camp in 1939. Mennonites served there later as guards. A small consolation: Mennonite youth visiting from Germany helped rebuild Stutthof as a memorial in 1973-74 (193).

Conclusion

Mennonite encyclopedic or Wikipedia entries do not mention the pro-fascist dealings of Benjamin H. Unruh (1881-1959) or the militarism of Hermann Mannhardt. Ben Goossen can therefore be thanked for inching their biographies closer to reality. Along with Peter Dyck, Cornelius F. Klassen (1894-1954) was a second icon of mid-twentieth century Mennonitism. Yet Goossen quotes on page 143, that Klassen “aligned himself with Hitler’s Germany, railing against social-democratic rot, the Communist insanity, and the machinations of the Jews.” Apparently, a part of the essential story on C.F. Klassen remains untold.

My primary criticism of Goossen’s treatise pertains to the fact that he only tells half the Mennonite story. Though the book’s title refers to “Mennonites in Germany,” solely the low-German story is told. More seriously, the story is told from the perspective of the Mennonite émigré, not also from those who “remained behind.” Surely there were Mennonites who did not desert the Red Army. I—not a specialist in Mennonite history—have not heard their story. Goossen reports that after WW I a “subset” of Mennonites joined the Bolsheviks and attempted to foment class struggle (110). That is a story which, to my knowledge, has yet to be told.

Most importantly of all, the book does not tell the Mennonite story as perceived through the eyes of their Slavic neighbors. Why, in 1920, did the anarchists and Bolsheviks of eastern Ukraine react as they did? Bolsheviks included Mennonites among the most counter-revolutionary of Russia’s minorities.

The mass Soviet deportations eastward in August 1941 were motivated by the suspicion that ethnic Germans were potential turncoats. As it turned out, those suspicions were completely justified. The communist position was, among other things, also a reaction to the German and German-Mennonite position. (These words are no defense of Stalinist behavior; they are only an attempt to understand it.) Western Mennonites have produced hundreds of treatises describing communist guilt; it is now time to hear the other half. We must hear more than only how Mennonites have interpreted themselves.

Though untold here, Ben Goossen understands that another Slavic narrative exists. Indeed, he has taken initial steps. When Mennonite farmers moved into Russia or the American frontier, they ”seized the land.” No amalgamation with native forces took place—they were simply displaced (211). Slavs were welcome as field laborers, not as co-owners. Concerned little about the good of the whole, these colonists intended to remain an ark in a Slavic sea. (Of course, there were exceptions, and prejudice ran both ways.) The author relates: Christian farmers opposed heathen nomads. Mennonite writers portrayed their colonies as “blossoming islands in the middle of Russian barbarianism” (102). Yet by 1920, Russia’s Mennonite colonies had clearly entered the globe’s post-colonial age.

Goossen refers in several instances to the Mennonite narrative’s bias: refugees were “lost” until MCC located them. Mennonites were “rescued out” of Russia—an interpretation still far from dead. The author describes the “lost” Baltic homeland as “a place of mystic tragedy.” Mennonites and other Germans have “constructed an intricate memorial culture;” minute details of their former lives are “obsolete and therefore fascinating” (191). Sadly, as we can observe since 1990, this “outpouring of minutiae” has not automatically resulted in interest for the present and future well-being of these Slavic societies. Why have almost no Mennonite refugees from Eastern Europe and their offspring chosen to move back to the “homeland”?

A further problem involves the fact that this study harbors an ideological agenda not requisite to the story. The author rejects mission as a colonial enterprise and places the word “heathen” in quotation marks (33). Gender issues, hardly ever a part of the historic Mennonite narrative, crop up in several instances. According to him, the denunciation of a Jewish neighbor in Nazi-occupied Ukraine or the shaming of the “queer” in the USA are “at least as Mennonite as bonnets, buggies and pacifism” (211).

Due in part to my perusal of the current Russian political and theological scene, I remain wary of the libertarian, individualist, pro-abortion, gender-neutral, essentially secular agenda grafted into western Mennonitism during the past three decades. Its present ideology may well be a result of the old desire of the intellectual to “be modern,” to conform. They are interested in worldly fashion, in keeping up with the Joneses. The venerable Mennonite theologian Myron Augsburger expressed to me in early 2017 his concern that Mennonite thought is no longer non-conformist: “Mennonite thinking should be with Kingdom priorities and Christ-centered in distinction from the liberal, secular agenda.”

It was the educated who brought down pacifism in Germany and Holland in the nineteenth century. Mennonite involvement in the wars of German nationalism and fascism ensued. Had German Mennonites remained “old-fashioned,” they would not have been guarding the condemned at Stutthof. Pacifism keeps believers with pro-fascist leanings—or liberals currently supporting “humanitarian” wars in the Middle East—from involvement in greater mischief.

Non-pacifism means ethical anarchy in countries with an aggressive foreign policy. In the U.S. context it meant that Mennonites dropping pacifism in the late 1950s soon had their sons dropping Agent Orange on the hapless peasants of Southeast Asia. In the context of WW II, it was the world’s rural and under-educated Mennonites who ended up prophetic, who stood the best chance of not compromising the Anabaptist witness.

The pacifists are almost always the prophets. Mennonites and Protestants in general, once they haven “broken free” of pacifism, don’t have the political savvy or acumen (“politischer Durchblick”) required to stay out of particularly questionable wars. Perhaps only some Marxists and Quakers are capable of choosing their wars carefully.

Mennonites have proven prophetic by accident. Their state was a gift of heaven, not a result of cool analysis. Connected to the wisdom of tradition, country bumpkins have proven to be the actual prophets. In Sarasota, Florida, it’s the Amish steering their barely-kosher electric tricycles across baked asphalt parking malls that point to a saner and greener form of future transport. The world is a ball, and the Amish were so far behind the trend that they suddenly ended up out front. When the professors have lost their way, the stones will cry out (Luke 19:40).

We all so through a glass darkly. In hopes of learning from past mistakes, I encourage Ben Goossen and others to press onward with their diligent research.

Originally from Sarasota, Florida, William E. (Bill) Yoder (born 1950), has resided in Russia and Belarus since 2001. He received a Ph.D. in political science from West Berlin’s “Free University” in 1991. He can be reached at kant50(at)web(dot)de”.

Intimacies and Admonishments: Some Thoughts on the Crossing the Line Exhibition

Jennifer Shenk

Many of the artists in this beautifully intimate exhibition curated by Dr. Rachel Epp Buller cross the boundaries of time. They are time travelers of a sort, seeking to open windows into the past to understand the lives of their fore-bearers, and their own, anew.

Jayne Holsinger

Jayne Holsinger, Selections from Nine Tetrameters, 1996. Oil on Canvas

Jane Holsinger, for example, frames her paintings in the four-patch quilt block pattern, a grid structure that is at once reminiscent of both domestic labor and modernist painting. Painting is a form of relationship between the artist and the subject; in this case it is a relationship characterized by a search for affinity with the hands of the women in the artist’s past.

Teresa Braun’s eerily beautiful video piece, accessible via screen and headphones in the exhibition space, also floats between multiple worlds. She combines performance, the body, film, and the digital to craft a family mythology that questions the autonomous boundaries of the individual. In The Plaint, the body is organism, architecture, and sustenance all at once, and the artist’s present identity is navigated through the characters of the past.

Gesine Janzen

Gesine Janzen, “September 11, 1817,” 2015 (top). Etching. “The Color of Memory,” 2016 (bottom). Photopolymer intaglio print.

Gesine Janzen’s prints play with the role of remnants. What happens when we glimpse the gaze of our ancestors, frozen in a photograph, or their handwriting, lining the pages of a journal? The photograph is an object that by definition is a marker of loss (in the fact that when looking at a photograph one is never when/where the photograph is taken, and can never be then or there again.) Loss pervades Janzen’s work, in the woman who is no longer here and the message that can no longer be read.

The works of Jennifer Miller, Kandis Friesen, and Karen Reimer, on the other hand, carry strong admonitions, seeking to bring attention to our forms of complicity and ask us to question the narratives we have inherited.

Jennifer Miller

Jennifer Miller, Crude, Powdered graphite, ink, acrylic on paper 2013.

Kandis Friesen

Kandis Friesen, Onsa Japse Jeit Jantsied, 2015. Leather and thread.

 

In Miller’s case, she is implicated in her political criticism of the Keystone XL pipeline through the personal history of her family’s involvement with it. Tension becomes palpable in the green paint, actively oozing from the surface of Crude. In Friesen’s piece, a hand-sewn drawing on leather, it is the recognition of the colonial history that has been erased from many Mennonite narratives of trauma and migration, evident in the staunch pierced leather, a material that is a product of conquest.

Karen Reimer

Karen Reimer, Socialist Worker, March 31, 2000, 2000 (detail)

Rendering a copy of the Socialist Worker, March 31, 2000 through embroidery in her piece of the same title, Karen Reimer not only elicits questions about the notion of originality and authorship (i.e. who gets to take credit for the work of art?) but also calls the status of the very art object into question, flattening the mythology of the individual-artist-genius. Drawing on the rich history of activism and consciousness-raising associated with fiber arts, Reimer’s piece, like many in this exhibition, subtly probe the relationship between the past and the present, asking us to examine the hierarchies in our own systems of value.

Editor’s Note: While Anabaptist Historians generally focuses on historical research, in the interdisciplinary spirit of “Crossing the Line”, we are broadening our scope during this series to include a wide variety of Anabaptist studies.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

Power, History, and the Future Church Summit

Shortly after we married, my wife turned to me and asked, “Why are all the influential men in the Mennonite church historians?”

Strictly speaking, this is not a true statement, with Orie O. Miller and George Brunk1 being examples of North American Mennonite leaders who did not work historically. But, working from my context with Mennonites in the United States, there is a strong line of Mennonite leaders using history as a tool towards power, specifically the power that comes with shaping the story of Mennonites.2  The story has played a role in the way Mennonites understand their identity, and  has contributed to power dynamics in Mennonite historiography that must be reckoned with. (For a parallel in how institutions have shaped history, see posts by Jason Kauffman and Simone Horst.)

The following is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but merely a demonstration of how intimately enmeshed history is with influencing Mennonite identity and faith, a project many of these embraced as “creating a useable past.”

  • The immigrant Bishop Heinrich Funk (d. 1760) worked alongside Dielman Kolb and others to have the Ephrata Martyrs’ Mirror translated and printed as a way to remember the mythic origin of Anabaptism in the face of the Seven Years’ War.3

  • His grandson, John F. Funk (1835-1930), worked to create a unified Mennonite community, as best exemplified by Herald of Truth.  His publishing house worked to create a usable past for this newly “unified” community, reprinting texts such as The Martyrs’ Mirror  and the 1632 Dortrecht Confession of Faith.4

  • C. Henry Smith (1875-1948) wrote “Christian Peace: Four Hundred Years of Mennonite Peace Principles and Practice” as a brief overview of how Anabaptists have practiced nonresistance, written for workers in CO camps. The pamphlet ends with a doctrinal and ecclesiological discussion on the future of the peace testimony. Threats include “the subtle influence creeping into the church from certain short cut Bible schools which are committed to an unwholesome overemphasis on a militant millenarianism . . .”5

  • Harold S. Bender (1897-1962) perhaps most clearly illustrates this trend with the Anabaptist vision he and his students promoted. Because of some doctrinal disagreements, his position at Goshen was in history rather than Bible or theology, the fields of his formal training. Fred Kniss notes in Disquiet in the Land that this meant “he was thus able to avoid most of the divisive disputes over doctrine. By concentrating on Anabaptist-Mennonite history, he was able to concentrate on questions that drew communalism back into the center of Mennonite discussion.”6

  • John Howard Yoder (1927-1997), while a theologian, rooted his work in a historical methodology. The Politics of Jesus works towards systematic ethics and theology with biblical and historical scholarship. In his “Anabaptist Vision with Mennonite Reality,” John D. Roth notes that one of the innate tensions in Politics is a confusing use of history, where Anabaptism is claimed as a hermeneutic but used as a historical possibility.7

  • Moving towards the contemporary era, John D. Roth continues the tradition of historians playing leading roles in the Mennonite church with the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and its initiative, the Bearing Witness Stories Project, both of which work to create a useable past from the experience of Anabaptists around the globe.8

  • Ervin R. Stutzman, current executive director of Mennonite Church USA, also has historical inclinations. He has published a series of historical fiction novels, including the Return to Northkill series, looking at the encounters between the Hochstetler family and Native Americans, as well as From Nonresistance to Justice: The Transformation of Mennonite Church Peace Rhetoric 1908-2008, which is a rhetorical and historical look at how Mennonites articulate what they believe about peace.

All these have given valuable contributions to the Mennonite understanding of who they are, as well as helped conversations with how the faith community has related and interacted with broader culture. But it is important to recognize the power, albeit soft power, therein. One demonstration of this is, as Felipe Hinojosa notes, how “historian after historian has ignored the calls by Black and Brown Mennonites—and marginal white Mennonites— that offer us alternative visions of the future church.

The power of history as a tool for understanding and controlling identity came to the forefront during Mennonite Church USA’s Future Church Summit (FCS), part of MC USA’s biennial convention. The FCS was billed as an opportunity for the denomination to imagine what it means to “follow Jesus as Anabaptists in the 21st century.” After building community with the table groups on the first day, the process turned to the question, “How our past has shaped us and what this may mean for us going forward?”9 To provide context, there was a plenary presentation that featured John D. Roth, Erica Littlewolf (Northern Cheyenne), Jason B. Kauffman, Bishop Leslie Francisco III, and Regina Shands Stoltzfus presenting a timeline of Mennonite history, graphically presented as a tangled vine growing from sixteenth century roots and stretching into the future.

An effort was made to be as broad and inclusive as possible in the process. There was diversity represented among the presenters, with representation from African Americans and Native Americans, and participants were reassured that they would have the opportunity, indeed, were encouraged, to come up afterwards and expand the timeline. Some interesting dynamics were explored, especially as Erica Littlewolf teased out how Mennonite narratives of coming into the land and finding freedom and prosperity directly contradicted her people’s experience of suffering.

There were problems in the presentation’s content, however, with significant gaps in the material presented. There was no mention of the rich Hispanic Mennonite tradition (though this was partly because a representative could not make it at the last moment), no past for the LGBTQ Mennonites (perhaps not surprising given the politics of MC USA), and no mention of the old General Conference Mennonites (an omission, I am told, that left some people so angry they could barely speak). The history as it was told did not contain all people present.

However, the content gaps were not the most striking disconnect in the presentation. Most striking was that the lack of recognition of the power dynamics inherent in history, especially in the Mennonite church context, since church history has been equated with stories of belonging that are told in our faith tradition. The opening remark, “We all know that is history is an argument” was an example of this. It may be a true statement in the academy, but it is at odds with how history has been embodied publicly in Mennonite congregations and schools.10

History in the Mennonite church has been a tool of authority, giving an absolute view of what happened in the past. History has been a firm foundation for the purpose of maintaining Mennonite identity, not a malleable past that can be argued. There was a fundamental disconnect between the useable past given to summit participants and the history many attendees had been primed to receive by experience in church and school. This is in part why the reaction to the historical gaps was so strong: people were looking for a useable past that told them who they were, but instead were told that they needed to find history for themselves.11

As historians choosing to practice history within the church, we need to be aware of the weight of interpreting the past. The place to start is to give careful attention to the contours of power surrounding Mennonite historiography, an investigation that deserves further attention. It is from this place that we can work with individuals, congregations and broader church institutions to create history that is in the service of living traditions.12

 

 


  1.  I have not made an extensive study of George Brunk and his thought, but am basing this claim on a conversation with Javan Lapp, who has studied revivalism among Old Order and conservative Mennonites. 
  2.  There is also an interesting phenomena where non-historians writers have felt they need to translate their work into history in order to speak into the Church, but that is outside the scope of this post. 
  3.  Zijpp, Nanne van der, Harold S. Bender and Richard D. Thiessen, “Martyrs’ Mirror.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, November 2014 (accessed July 19, 2017). 
  4.  Ted Maust, “”Union with such as we might perhaps otherwise never know”: John F. Funk and the Herald of Truth, 1854-1864,” Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 38 no. 2 (April 2015): 40-54. 
  5.  C. Henry Smith, “Christian Peace: Four Hundred Years of Mennonite Peace Principles and Practice” (Peace Committee of the General Conference of the Mennonite Church in North America, 1938), 31. 
  6.  Fred Kniss, Disquiet in the Land: Cultural Conflict in American Mennonite Communities (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 65; James C. Juhnke Vision, Doctrine, War: Mennonite Identity and Organization in America, 1890-1930 Mennonite Experience in America Vol. 3 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1985), 277-282. 
  7.  John D. Roth, “Living Between the Times: ‘The Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality’ Revisited” in Refocusing a Vision, ed. John D. Roth (Goshen, Ind.: Mennonite Historical Society, 1995); John Howard Yoder, “Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality,” in A. J. Klassen, ed., Consultation on Anabaptist-Mennonite Theology (Fresno, Cal.: Council of Mennonite Seminaries, 1970). 
  8. Goshen College, “Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism” goshen.edu, https://www.goshen.edu/isga/ (Accessed July 19,2017). 
  9.  Mennonite Church USA, “Future Church Summit,” http://convention.mennoniteusa.org/future-church-summit/ (accessed July 19, 2017). I attended as the delegate for Pilgrims Mennonite Church, Akron, Pennsylvania. Most of the material going forward is based on my personal notes. 
  10.  In his ethnographic study of Mennonite schools in Lancaster, Pa., Ken Sensenig notes, “Heritage [that is, history] awareness plays a significant role in Greenfield’s attempts to maintain its peace position. Remembering and interpreting the people and concepts which gave birth to the Anabaptist/Mennonites during the sixteenth century Reformation is one important method of teaching peace at this school. [. . .] More formal heritage training takes place in the classroom, with both schools devoting courses exclusively to the study of Mennonite and general church history. The commitment to peace and justice is an important focus of these studies. Kenneth L. Sensenig, “An Ethnographic Approach to the Study of Sociopolitical Views in Two Mennonite High Schools.” (Dissertation, Temple University, Philadelphia, 1991), 91-92. 
  11. This is not a bad way to do history in the church, but it is not how many are accustomed to it to being done. 
  12.  I borrow this phrase from William H. Katerberg, “Is there Such a Thing as ‘Christian’ History?” Fides et Historia 34:1 (winter/Spring 2002): 57-66. 

Rising through Mennonite shame, Reflections on Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries

Anna Wall

This post first appeared at Mennopolitan.

Life is like a Kjrinjel1: you never know how it’s going to twist.

A year ago, when I received an invitation from Abigail Carl-Klassen to participate in a panel at a conference at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, I said “YES!” before I’d even finished reading the email. The panel would showcase creative work by and about women from Mennonite communities in Mexico, discussing transnational identities and issues.

Editor’s Note: While Anabaptist Historians generally focuses on historical research, in the interdisciplinary spirit of “Crossing the Line”, we are broadening our scope during this series to include a wide variety of Anabaptist studies.

As the date of the conference drew closer, I became overwhelmed with fear and self-doubt. I thought, “Who am I kidding?  I can’t do this!” So I did what I always do when that happens: drop everything and read a book, because now, I can. Luckily, my friend and co-worker Sidney Bater has a library full of books that are written just for me. I picked up one of the books whose title spoke to me: Rising Strong by Brené Brown. After reading this book, I thought, “So what if I screw this up and fall flat on my face? I will rise strong and do it again.”

That was easier said than done. But I was able to stay focused enough to go through with it. It began with a ten-hour drive to Virginia from Ontario in a black minivan with four amazing women. We came from different backgrounds, yet we all had so much in common.

Upon arriving at EMU campus, I was thrilled to learn that I was sharing a room with Laura Morlock, one of the women that I had just gotten to know during the ten-hour trip. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and the reason for her company was to keep me from letting self-doubt crush me.

What an overwhelmingly humbling experience it was as I remembered George’s words: “Life doesn’t happen in the same order for everyone, and there is nothing wrong with that.”

I thought, “Finally! Not only do I get to sleep in a dorm at a university, but at a Mennonite university.”I giggled a little on the inside, because the butterflies in my stomach were going insane with excitement.

The next day, after walking around on campus in disbelief, and taking it all in, I met with Abigail Carl-Klassen and Veronica Enns, who were part of the panel. I immediately connected with both of them. The experience was deeply moving.

That evening, I sat beside my new friends Abby and Vero in the theater listening to women speak. I mostly spent the whole time fighting back the tears, because every word that was spoken touched me so deeply.

After successfully holding back my tears, I made my way to the art gallery. As I stood in front of an art piece, staring at it and trying to feel what it was telling me, a man joined me there. I glanced at him nervously, and it was none other than Canadian History Professor Royden Loewen. I recognized him because I had met him at a lecture and book signing I had attended at Conrad Grebel University a while before with my friend Shirley Redekop. As Shirley flipped through Royden’s book, Villages Among Nations, she pointed out a picture of a Rev. Johann P. Wall, and asked if I could be related to him. And that’s when I discovered that not only was Rev. Johann P. Wall my great-grandfather, but he was one of the leaders who took part in the decision to migrate to Mexico from Saskatchewan Canada in the 1920s.  

I moved on to the coffee lineup, and there I spotted another familiar face. It was the one-and-only author, Saloma Miller Furlong. I had read her memoir, Bonnet Strings, a couple of months before, and had afterwards sought out information about her online.

After reading about Saloma, I dreamed of meeting her someday. I told myself that if I ever got to meet her, I would hug her, and she would know why, before we even exchanged any words. But when I stood in front of her, I froze, and shook her hand instead. I told her many things that I hadn’t planned to say. But at the end of my ramble, she hugged me and said, “Find me tomorrow. I want to talk to you some more.”

It was hard to settle down and go to sleep after all that.

After Abigail Carl-Klassen had presented, I nervously walked up to the front to share my story. I began with the pivotal decision to cross cultural boundaries and two borders–leaving my colony in Mexico and coming to Canada. I shared that I was illiterate and didn’t speak English, and how I faced many barriers as I began my journey of finding my place in a whole new world, one that I had never been part of.

I spoke about how I began attending an adult learning center, at which point I had only even written my name a handful of times, and how simply holding a pen in my hand was awkward. I shared how ashamed I was of my literary incompetence and how embarrassing it was, as I was nineteen years old and felt like I was starting kindergarten. I said that ever since then, reading and writing have been my obsession, one of the main reasons I started blogging.  At the beginning of my presentation, I stumbled over my words and said sort of what I had written, but in mixed-up order. I reminded myself of what I had read in the book, Rising Strong, that it was alright; I should leave my mistakes behind and just continue.

When I read a post from my blog titled Fashion Faux Pas, and people began laughing with me as I read, I knew that I was back on track. That moment was the first time I felt I was doing exactly what I was meant to do. That included speaking in front of an audience about ridiculously embarrassing experiences that at one point I wouldn’t have wanted to remember, let alone tell strangers about.

It was surreal—not only being there, but being in the presence of scholars I had only read about, and discussing an art piece in Plautdietsch with a Canadian history professor. Then there was sharing with Saloma Miller Furlong my dream of publishing a memoir, and comparing our similar experiences and our struggles over how to clothe our bodies after shunning our Mennonite dresses.

I left the conference with an abundance of knowledge, hope, and new relationships. The experience has inspired me to no end. Thank you to Abigail Carl-Klassen for opening the door, and to EMU for inviting me in.

Thank you.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.


  1. From, Plautdietsch; m. (pl: s) a pretzel, twisted buns, a soft pretzel 

“Art, Migration and (Home)making: Mennonite Women, Mexico and ‘the World’” Women from Old Colony Communities in Mexico Share Their Stories and Their Art at Eastern Mennonite University’s Crossing the Line Conference

Abigail Carl-Klassen, Anna Wall, and Veronica Enns

50 years after their arrival from Prussia in the 1870s, 7,000 Altkolonier (Old Colony) Mennonites left Manitoba and Saskatchewan to form new, more conservative colonies in northern Mexico, due to conflicts with the Canadian government concerning secularization and compulsory English language instruction mandates for colony schools. The Mexican government promised Old Colony communities educational autonomy and exemptions from military service in exchange for occupying and developing remote, yet contested, territory in the wake of the Mexican Revolution. The first colonies in the states of Chihuahua and Durango were established in 1922 and 1924 respectively and grew quickly as a result of high birthrates and subsequent migrations. Today there are more than 100,000 Mennonites living in Mexico, primarily in Chihuahua and Durango, but also in more recently settled colonies in Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Quintana Roo, Tamaulipas and Campeche. Descendants of this migration have also participated in subsequent migrations and have formed colonies in Belize, Bolivia, Paraguay, and most recently Peru and Colombia.

In the early days of the Mexican colonies, residents were isolated geographically and socially from larger Mexican society; however, over time, modernization of agriculture, industry, and transportation has increased commercial contact with surrounding Mexican communities and social and commercial contact with Mennonite colonies throughout the Americas. Today it is not uncommon for colonies with modern dress, cars, Internet, and schools accredited by the Mexican education system to exist within close proximity of colonies with much more strict and traditional regulations concerning dress, education, and technology.

Editor’s Note: While Anabaptist Historians generally focuses on historical research, in the interdisciplinary spirit of “Crossing the Line”, we are broadening our scope during this series to include a wide variety of Anabaptist studies.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, Mennonites in Mexico have become increasingly mobile and transnational. In the 1970s, several thousand Old Colony Mennonites from Mexico, many of whom still retained Canadian citizenship, began migrating to Ontario while others established a new colony in Seminole, Texas. While many formed migrant worker circuits residing in Canada and/or the United States for half the year to perform agricultural work and returning to Mexico for the other half, others settled permanently. These migrations continue to the present day and impact the social and cultural landscape of colonies in all three countries.

“Art, Migration, and (Home)making: Mennonite Women, Mexico and ‘the World’” was a panel at Eastern Mennonite University’s Crossing the Line: Anabaptist Women Encounter Borders and Boundaries conference that sought to explore the personal side of this complex network of migrations and identities through the presentation of poetry, creative non-fiction and visual art.

Abigail Carl-Klassen, who grew up in Seminole, Texas, read poetry based on ethnographic research and oral history interviews that she conducted in Seminole, Texas and Chihuahua, Mexico. The poems “Freizeit” and “Self-Portraits with the Flower Women” explored the multi-faceted encounters that Old Colony women had with personal, community, and geographic borders from the 1940s to the present day. Her work can be found at https://abigailcarlklassen.wordpress.com/

Reflecting on the panel and her conference experiences Abigail noted,

When I started writing I didn’t know there was such a thing as Mennonite literature or scholarship. I just knew that I needed to tell the compelling stories of the people around me. While I was working on my thesis, a collection of poems based on the experiences of friends and family in Old Colony communities in Mexico, I was introduced to a thriving community that welcomed me into the fold. When I slip the work of Di Brandt, Sarah Klassen, or Julia Kasdorf into the hands of women I grew up with or connect someone from my community with Rhubarb or the work of Royden Lowen it’s like experiencing that joy of discovery all over again.

I organized this panel because I feel it is important that Mennonite women from colonies in Mexico be able to tell their own stories and have a space to showcase their creative work. Though Anna, Veronica and I only knew each other through social media before the conference, I felt like we had an instant connection and would be good friends. I was overwhelmed by the positive response that our panel received and am excited about new opportunities for collaboration and about the ways these connections will open up ways for women of Old Colony origin to share their experiences and creative work whether they are living in Mexico, the U.S., Canada, or elsewhere in the Americas.

Anna Wall, who blogs at http://www.mennopolitan.com/ about her experiences growing up in a conservative colony in Durango, Mexico, read a creative non-fiction piece from her blog that explored her struggles leaving the colony and as a new immigrant in Canada.  With humor and seriousness she talked about learning to read and write, earning her high school diploma, finding her identity and her current job as a community health worker and Plautdietsch interpreter in Ontario.

Anna shared her experiences as an attendee and presenter saying,

At the age of 16, I crossed a pivotal boundary, and two borders when I left my colony that is tucked away, hidden far in the mountains of Durango, Mexico. I left everything I had ever known and came to Canada. I was illiterate and didn’t speak English. I faced many barriers as I began my journey of learning how to fit into a whole new world that I had never been part of before.

At the age of 19, I began attending an adult learning center in St. Thomas Ontario. At that point, I had only ever written my name a handful of times. Even just simply holding a pen in my hand was awkward. I was ashamed of my literary incompetence and felt like I was going to kindergarten. Reading and writing have become my obsession ever since.

Three years ago, I started a blog www.mennopolitan.com I post stories of my lived experience growing up as an Old Colony Mennonite. Going to kindergarten in Canada as an adult, being torn between two worlds and finding my place in it.

When I received and email from Abigail Carl-Klassen telling me that she had been following my blog for a while and invited me to participate in a panel that would showcase creative work by and about women from Mennonite communities in Mexico. Discussing transnational identities and issues. I said YES! Before I finished reading the email.  

Within minutes of meeting both Abigail and Veronica, I immediately connected with both of them. The experience was soulful.

It was surreal. Not only being in the presence of such scholars I had only read about, but discussing an art piece with Canadian History Professor Royden Loewen in Plautdietsch and sharing my dream of publishing a memoir with author Saloma Miller Furlong, while comparing notes on similar experiences and how we are still struggling with how to dress our bodies after leaving our communities. I left the conference with an abundance of knowledge and new relationships. The experience has inspired me to no end. Thank you for opening the door!

Veronica Enns, a visual artist, and creative director at Cabañas Las Bellotas in Chihuahua, whose work can be found at http://www.veronicaenns.com/ shared her experiences growing up in a conservative colony in Chihuahua, her immigration to Canada as a young woman, and how studying and creating art allowed her to process and heal from past trauma. She also discussed what ultimately motivated her to move from Vancouver back to Mexico, close to the colony where she was raised. Currently, she runs a ceramics studio, gives community arts workshops, has exhibitions in Mexican galleries and works on collaborative projects with Mexican artists. Most recently, her work was showcased at the Festival of Three Cultures which seeks to celebrate and bring together the indigenous Tarahumara, Mexican, and Mennonite communities in the Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua region.

She spoke excitedly about her experiences at the conference saying,

Growing up [in a conservative colony in Mexico], I didn’t think that Mennonite and education went together. I never imagined that a conference like this was possible—that people went to university to learn about Mennonites and that our life in the colony was the subject of academic study or that I would be a part of that by presenting here. When I left the colony I thought I was done being Mennonite, but over the years I’ve been brought back to my roots in new ways.

Several years ago, a friend of mine gave one of my paintings to Elsie K. Neufeld, a writer, photographer and storyteller of Mennonite origin who lives in Vancouver, Canada. Elsie was curious to find out more about the artist, as she linked my last name to be Mennonite. Thanks to social media we connected a few months after I moved from Vancouver back to my roots in Chihuahua, Mexico. Elsie met Abby Carl Klassen on a writing conference in Fresno California in 2015 and shared some details about my art and experiences. This connected Abby to me and the ball got rolling.

I trusted that my presentation would be embraced at this conference. Although not knowing anyone in person and having compiled a bunch of personal stories made me very nervous; however, a few hours after arriving on the EMU campus, I felt overwhelmed with the warmth in hospitality. I was impressed with all the highly educated personalities and how humbly they shared their own personal stories as we all had walked common grounds as woman who often encounter similar boundaries. Academics and faith had never been used together before in my educational and cultural experience. I had found my tribe.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.